GOP's Lewis uses call to defund police against Smith in Senate race

Jason Lewis
Republican Senate candidate Jason Lewis holds a town hall meeting in Bemidji in January to discuss a recent county vote barring refugees from resettling in the area.
John Enger | MPR News

Republicans around the country are criticizing Democrats over calls among some to defund police departments after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. 

One of those Republicans is former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, who is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.

Lewis contends Minnesotans who live in the suburbs and in rural areas are worried that protest and property destruction in Minneapolis and St. Paul will come to their neighborhoods. Lewis is using those concerns to run as a law-and-order alternative to Smith. While Lewis scoffs at the idea of defunding police departments, he stops just short of accusing Smith of supporting the idea.

“Well she’s gotten pretty close,” Lewis said. “On the Senate floor she said we have to reexamine the role police play. 'We want to reimagine police.' I don’t know if that means that if you call 911 you get Dr. Phil or what.”

Lewis accused Smith of labeling her constituents “racist” as she talks about the need to address systematic racism.

“Quite frankly, I think she’s been horribly irresponsible in some of her rhetoric, suggesting that the entire state is racist,” Lewis said.

Smith countered that Lewis is trying to divide Minnesotans.

“I have made it clear that I don’t support defunding police departments,” Smith said. “I don’t support abolishing police departments.”

Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council have said they support dismantling the city's Police Department. The council members say past efforts to reform the department have failed, so they are not going to try to implement new training policies or civilian oversight. But they say the changes will come over time, and even they are not sure yet exactly what a new public safety environment will look like. 

Mayor Jacob Frey has said he wants major changes in the department but does not support defunding or eliminating it.

Voters will see through rhetoric from Lewis and other Republicans, Smith said. 

“I believe that it will backfire because I believe that we are on the right side of history,” Smith said.

Four people stand in front of the ruins of a building.
Faisal Demaag, owner of Chicago Furniture Warehouse, speaks with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Tina Smith in front of the burnt remains of his business in South Minneapolis on Friday, June 5, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The unrest that followed Floyd’s killing and the calls to defund police departments will help Republicans politically, said Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Jennifer Carnahan. 

“I think in Minnesota it will be an issue because we watched our city burn, Minneapolis and St. Paul, for the better part of a week,” Carnahan said. “The outcry of frustration and anger with the Democratic leadership in our state is very pronounced at this time.”

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin acknowledged the defund language presents challenges to his party but, like Smith, Martin said he believes most voters understand the call to change law enforcement is not a call to eliminate police departments.

“Messaging matters,” Martin said. “They’re going to take any opportunity they can to try to misrepresent our positions, and that’s what they’re doing.”

The Smith-Lewis match-up is the only statewide race on the November’s ballot apart from the presidential contest.

In addition to having the advantage of incumbency, Smith has a major lead in fundraising over Lewis. Through March, Smith had $4.6 million in campaign cash—that’s more than six times what Lewis had.

But Lewis points to Donald Trump’s defeat of a better-funded Hillary Clinton to say that money doesn’t necessarily decide elections. Lewis is banking on help from President Trump and his substantial campaign operation in Minnesota.

“We are allowed to piggyback on that quite frankly and that will help on the money end and on reaching voters and all of that as well” Lewis said. ”So, I’m very optimistic about this.”

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